Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Addressing Sexual Exploitation: Context

While agencies need to operate in a justice framework, organizations should operate in a framework of context. Of course, the pursuit of justice should guide the operations of an organization, but this should happen because of the policies created and the knowledge produced by the agencies involved in addressing sexual exploitation.

Organizations, on the other hand, should become experts on the context in which the operate. Because organizations create and supervise projects intending to assist individuals in a particular context, all the operations of these organizations should be framed by that context.

This is easier said than done - particularly because many organizations work in multiple contexts. However, there are three key components of context that I think organizations can assess and respond to in order to create more effective programs for their teams to carry out. As long as these following contextual factors are prioritized and understood, effective programs are much more possible.



This is a huge component that is easily overlooked by organizations coming into cultures in order to address sexual exploitation. This problem does not happen in a vacuum. Incidents from a country or community's history greatly impact the current situation - particularly incidents that put already vulnerable populations at an even greater risk. Because of the current patriarchal structure in most countries (more on this in the 'gender' section), women certainly fall into this category of vulnerable populations. Children, by their nature are also vulnerable. Combine this increased vulnerability with the desperation after a war, crisis, or natural disaster, and you have a huge risk for sexual exploitation.

Take Nepal for example. The country has been devestated by a massive earthquake. The organizations that understand the context within the country are preparing to prevent the women and children made vulnerable from being trafficked. Find out more about this specific situation here.

Sometimes the ripple effect of historical events are even more sinister than simple desperation. I've already discussed the effects of colonialism and war in my post about Southeast Asia. However, the influence does not always come from the outside. In the case of Rwanda, local tribes fought one another, committing atrocious crimes. Few people who survived the Rwandan genocide escaped without witnessing someone close to them brutally murdered or raped. This leaves a lasting mark, and now an entire generation is traumatized and without proper help. In the worst cases, this can lead to those who were once victims of trauma to inflict this kind of trauma on others - sometimes in the form of sexual exploitation.

If an organization does not understand these kinds of undercurrents in a context, their efforts to address current problems will inevitably fail.


Another important factor for organizations to consider in developing programs to address sexual exploitation is culture. This includes the religions, traditions, and values that are woven into every day life. A great example of this can be found in The Philippines. In this culture, titles for addressing one another are very important - brother and sister for those you are close to, doctor or attorney for those with specialized degrees, and other types of formal titles. Organizations need to understand the importance of this when creating programs. Many of the women coming out of situations of exploitation will need someone to invest in their life that is not necessarily a professional with a special degree. Being able to call someone "sister" that leads the program can go a long way for these women to begin healing.

Another example that I encountered was in Thailand, where there is a high spiritual value is placed on boys - expecting them to carry the spiritual merit of the family. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to meet the economic needs of the family. Furthermore, men who go above and beyond what is expected of them spiritually and become monks are highly respected. This system within the religion is important to understand, as it is these values that might drive a young girl to work in prositution or allow a monk to think that he can traffic children unpunished.

Let me be clear, here, though. There is a fine line that organizations must walk. Only in rare cases should they set out to change culture. However, in creating programs, these factors must be understood. Otherwise, projects may be addressing the wrong root of a problem. Almost any cultural value can be framed in a way that respects human rights. Organizations should strive to do so, but the first step is understanding the culture itself.


Finally, organizations must understand how a context defines and enforces gender norms before creating programs to address sexual exploitation. Some of this certainly is blended with the culture, but for the case of sexual exploitation, since it is a form of gender-based violence, understanding gender norms is of particular concern. Here are some examples of questions that organizations can ask in order to understand the gender norms in a context:

  • How is the role of men and women in the workplace and/or family different?
  • At what age are women expected to marry? What about men?
  • How are husbands and wives expected to act around their spouse?
  • Do girls and boys receive the same quality education?
  • Are there any traditional practices that are potentially harmful to one gender over another?

All of these questions might bring out gender norms that can serve as clues for why individuals are sexually exploited in a particular context. If organizations can take the time to assess the situation within a context, programs can be more adequately shaped so that sustainable change in the area of sexual exploitation can occur.


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